Rush-hour commuters on the MTR told the South China Morning Post yesterday they would catch earlier trains if fares were cheaper but balked at the idea of ripping out seats to squeeze more people into carriages.
It follows a change in the maximum capacity quota from six passengers per square metre to four - meaning the East Rail and Tseung Kwan O lines are now deemed to have reached capacity during rush-hour instead of being considered 70 per cent full.
The Transport and Housing Bureau told the MTR Corporation this week that the growing use of mobile gadgets was one reason why passengers required more room, and passengers were less likely to board packed trains.
With the new calculation also pushing West Rail, Tsuen Wan, Kwun Tong and Island lines to more than 90 per cent capacity at rush hour, the government has asked the MTR to look at how to ease the squeeze, including the possibility of removing seats or introducing early-bird schemes.
Watch: Hong Kong's MTR during peak hours
On an eastward Island Line train at Admiralty at about 8.40am, the Post counted 25 people in the six square metres between the train doors on either side, slightly over the new quota - but at least six of them were in the one square metre right behind the door nearest the platform.
Lee Fuk-yiu, who works in the leasing sector, agreed with the new quota but hoped no seats would be lost as people travelling long distances would need them.
Lee believed concessions would see passengers like him change their travelling times. He added: "Tourists' cases and people's backpacks take up far more space than mobile gadgets."
Lo Lop-kay, 50, who works in the construction industry, also backed an early-bird scheme but was against removing seats. "Leave the trains as they are. If they want more standing room, they can design new trains."
Rachel Ho said she avoided taking her two-year-old son on the MTR during rush hour but was still left having to carry him.
Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, of the New People's Party, proposed replacing fixed seats with flip-out seats. He added that early-bird fare concessions should only be available to commuters with monthly passes.
Gary Fan Kwok-wai, a NeoDemocrats legislator, warned the new quota meant last month's government report on the city's tourist capacity was now outdated. It forecast mainland tourists would rise from about 41 million to 70 million in three years.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So Kam-leung said at the time that an assessment indicated public transport capacity would not be overwhelmed.
The MTR noted it introduced non-peak hour fare discounts in 1988 to foster a change in travel patterns but ended the scheme in 1998 when the new Tung Chung Line eased capacity concerns.